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September 25th, 2017

Declassified

Kerry's soft words blunt U.S. hard power at sea

Eli Lake

By Eli Lake Bloomberg View

Published Sept. 5, 2016

Kerry's soft words blunt U.S. hard power at sea

There are times when I want President Barack Obama to invent a global crisis for John Kerry to solve, just to keep his secretary of state from making the real ones worse. Consider what happened at New Delhi this week, where Kerry offered a remarkable comment about the current tensions in the South China Sea. He said there was no "military solution."

Kerry was asked about China's public indifference to a decision in July from an international tribunal at the Hague that flatly rejected China's claims to the territorial waters of the Philippines in the South China Sea.

"We want to support a code of conduct for the management of the South China Sea," Kerry said. "We support diplomacy in an effort to try to resolve this with an understanding that there really is no, quote, 'military solution.' "

He added the U.S. was not interested in "fanning the flames of conflict but rather trying to encourage the parties to resolve their disputes and claims through the legal process and through diplomacy."

There are two things that are remarkable about Kerry's thoughts on this matter. To start, the U.S. position has been that the ruling of the Hague tribunal was not negotiable. While Washington does not officially take sides in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, it supports the rule of law and opposes China's efforts to assert sovereignty over these waters unilaterally. So what does it mean that Kerry is calling on both parties to take steps to resolve the issue as if this was the Arab-Israeli peace process? The only party "fanning the flames of conflict" in the South China Sea has been China.

More remarkable, though, is Kerry's utterance about military solutions. To start, the Chinese clearly believe there is a military solution to their problems in the South China Sea. That's why they keep militarizing the artificial islands they have been dredging up there.

More important, the Obama administration's primary policy for responding to all of this has been a military solution, so to speak. It has sent elements of the Seventh Fleet on "freedom of navigation" missions into disputed areas. And while these missions have not overtly challenged the waters around China's artificial islands, the military has been the driver of the U.S. policy response.

The pace and tenor of U.S. joint military exercises with East Asian allies has been a response to China's claims in the South China sea as well. To say nothing of new rounds of U.S. arms sales to countries threatened by China's activities as well. Most of the administration's vaunted "pivot to Asia" has been an attempt to reposition military assets.

None of this precludes U.S. diplomacy with China, but Kerry's efforts at conflict resolution undermine such diplomacy at a time when Chinese aggression has been censured by an international tribunal.

Daniel Blumenthal, the director of Asia Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told me Thursday: "Almost any response we have against China's aggression in the South China Sea is going to have a military component."

He clarified that this doesn't mean the U.S. should start a war with China, but he said almost every expert outside and inside the government has identified military steps the U.S. could take to deter China. These include things like U.S. Navy convoys to accompany Filipino fishermen into waters claimed by China, or sailing more aggressive missions into the waters surrounding China's artificial islands.

All of this is particularly important now in the run-up to this weekend's G-20 conference at Hangzhou. In recent months, China has signaled that it plans to begin dredging new artificial islands at Scarborough Shoal, which it continues to block from Filipino fishermen despite the international tribunal ruling. This threat is serious enough that Obama himself warned China's premier, Xi Jinping, to back away from the shoals in March, on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit.

Senior Japanese officials whom I met with in Tokyo last week told me that if China were to build and militarize islands in the shoals, it would have effective military control of the entire South China Sea, and could position aircraft and ships dangerously close to U.S. Naval assets in the Philippines. One Japanese official suggested the U.S. should consider a blockade of the shoals to prevent the Chinese from achieving their plan. (Another military solution, I know.)


In this respect, Kerry has sent a dangerous signal to China and America's East Asian allies. Andrew Shearer, senior adviser on Asia Pacific security with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former national security adviser to two Australian prime ministers, told me Kerry's job is to reassure our allies. He said the secretary's statement in New Delhi "risks reducing deterrence."

None of this should be surprising. Kerry's worldview is shaped by his experience in the Vietnam War, which as a young veteran he campaigned against. Kerry told Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon that he believes "war is the failure of diplomacy." This is, after all, the same secretary of state who brought James Taylor to Paris following the Charlie Hebdo massacre to play, "You've Got a Friend."

But America's friends need to know their most important ally is willing to stand up to China in the South China Sea. This should start with an acknowledgment that the U.S. has many military solutions to the crisis created there by China's military.

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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about politics and foreign affairs. He was previously the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast. Lake also covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI, and was a contributing editor at the New Republic.

Previously:
09/01/16: China's 'little green boats' have Japan on alert
08/31/16: Obama's CIA director wants to stick around for Clinton
08/29/16: Here's what Kerry should do to divide Iran and Russia
08/17/16: U.S. special ops in Syria are told, 'Don't get shot'
08/10/16: Why #NeverTrump movement is also #NeverGaryJohnson
08/04/16: Why Russia keeps getting away with hacking the U.S.
07/19/16: When clues nearly led the FBI to America's favorite Saudi
07/12/16: General Flynn outlines an all-out war on terror
07/11/16: The Palestinian incentive program for killing Jews
06/28/16: Obama's Iran policy is at odds with Hillary's message
06/22/16: Is Israel a pariah? Not according to its powerful new friends
06/10/16: U.S. taxpayers are funding Iran's military expansion
06/08/16: It's for good reason that aiding Kurds in and around Iraq is among the only bipartisan goals on America's foreign policy agenda
06/07/16: Why the U.S. Needs Russian Rocket Engines to Spy on Russia
06/06/16: Hillary Targets the 'Blame America First' Republicans
06/02/16: Hollywood and Korean pop could bring down Kim Jong-Un
05/25/16: REVEALED: The secret history of the Iran-deal 'echo chamber'
04/27/16: Pakistan has a China connection to nuclear trouble
04/19/16: Obama still not finished reinvigorating Iran
04/08/16: 'Panama Papers' could help go after Assad's wealth
04/05/16: Fascist or con man: The duelling Trump narratives
03/23/16: Hillary's convenient evolution on Israel
03/21/16: Cruz assembles an unlikely team of foreign-policy rivals
03/07/16: Trump turns out to be a politician, and not a good one
02/17/16: As Obama urges Congress, military says it can't send Gitmo detainees to U.S.
02/06/16: Hillary's security clearance is under scrutiny
12/23/15: Iran deal restricts U.S. more than Congress knew
12/11/15: Iranian troops abandoning Assad, Western officials say
12/09/15: Obama team weighs cyberwar options on Islamic State
11/20/15: After the Paris attacks, Bush whiffs on his war speech
11/18/15: What Obama's incoherence and anger at post-Paris press conference reveals
11/17/15: Dems begin to embrace 'regime change' --- again
11/13/15: Hurt feelings, unsafe spaces and other Israeli crimes
11/09/15: Egyptian leader seen as target of jihad
11/04/15: How Ahmad Chalabi survived his war to free Iraq
10/26/15: Now we know: AIPAC and the Dems who supported Iran deal
10/21/15: GOPers at Hilary hearing taking cues from Dems?


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